by John Vanderslice
The old lady pushed her left hand harder and all that came from the instrument was the off-kilter, incomplete sound of two notes trying to merge with a nonexistent third. A chord that fell off the roof before it had the chance to secure a perch. One of the men at the bar—she knew his name was Bonfils—the one with graying hair and a slipknot of a moustache, who kept swirling his glass of gin with a testy, womanish left hand—sneered.
“Somebody missed,” Bonfils called. He lifted the glass to his lips and took a fragile sip. “Or doesn’t Madame Camille make enough off her girls to fix her equipment?”
The old lady shook her head. She wasn’t supposed to get into arguments with the clients. Indeed, the entire point of her performance—in that room, on that piano—was to coax them into staying, into purchasing more drinks and perhaps additional sex. She flared her elbows and pushed harder with her fingers, trying to force out the melody, which ended up sounding like a cross between “Mon Beau Chateau” and “The Marseillaise,” but was supposed to be “Meunier, tu dors”. She deliberately kept her eyes away from the bar.
“Maybe if Camille had one or two fewer earrings,” the man tried, looking carefully at the old woman over the top of his glass, finally resting his chin atop that active left hand, “maybe if she bought one or two fewer necklaces for her own neck.”
“Are you almost through with all that, Lucien,” the girl at the bar interrupted. “You want me to see who’s available? Or should I plan on pouring you another?”
“I don’t want another,” the man said. “Why do you keep asking?”
“So should I see who’s available?”
“You already know who I want. Do I need to write it down in a letter and post it to you?”
The young man seated next to Bonfils—he was named Cousineau and looked positively childish, what with his thread thin blonde hair, unblemished skin, and the round blue cap teetering on the back of his head—snorted a blunt laugh. He raised his glass—as far as the old woman could tell it was just some rut gut wine—in salute to the ruder man.
The old woman had had enough of Bonfils’s taunting for one evening. Of course they were not supposed to chase anyone off, but Lucien Bonfils came equipped with the power to stretch a single glass of spirits further than any man she’d ever seen; and in that time he always managed to fit in more than a few choice words about her daughter and her daughter’s establishment. He was the kind of man who even as he purchased from you tried to punish you for it, as if compelled to make you pay for making him pay: some kind of underhanded, self-centered notion of equity. Except Bonfils was too sly—or too cowardly—to take out his resentment on Camille directly. Camille and only Camille had the power to ban men from the building. So instead of questioning and insulting and spitting heartless commentary at Camille herself, he directed his attacks at Camille’s mother while she played piano, or at Odette at the bar, or at any of the girls he happened to pass in the upper hallway when after an hour or more he was finally granted access to the second floor. His visits to the bedrooms, however, were always restricted to a single one: Geneviève’s. This fact, combined with his naked insolence and quiet snarl, made the old woman worry.
“Monsieur Bonfils,” she started, “if you’re dissatisfied with the service here, and the entertainment we provide, there are other houses to visit in the neighborhood. Right around the corner is the front door to Madame Valerie’s. Perhaps you would like it better there.”
“Did I say I didn’t like it here?” The skin of Bonfils’ cheeks, just down from his eye sockets, began to brim red.
“Yes,” the old woman said.
“No,” he countered. “What I don’t like is being barraged by a constant run of missed notes or dead notes or just plain bad notes. Apparently Camille thinks we’re too stupid to notice. Either that or we’re not valued enough to deserve decent playing, despite the fact that I shed dozens of francs here every week.”
The old woman felt the blood moving from her cheeks to her skull and then draining down her back to her ankles. When she spoke she hoped to sound commanding, but her voice just came out dry. “If you have any complaints, address them to my daughter. She’s in charge.”
Bonfils ignored her suggestion. “No,” he piped. “As long as Geneviève is around, I’m happy enough. More than that: I am transported.” He frequented the tiniest sip of gin to his lips. “But if your daughter ever lets her go . . . that’s another story.”
Odette—a formerly slim, nubile, and creamy-skinned prodigy, a veteran who at twenty-eight was beginning to slump in unfortunate places, forcing Camille to use her half-time at the bar and only half-time with paying customers—grunted softly; the old woman, meanwhile, whispered to herself under her breath. Genevieve, the most recent of her daughter’s latest acquisitions, represented a special prize for a certain kind of man, a man like Lucien Bonfils, for instance. Geneviève was two months shy of fourteen years old, and she looked it. While most of Camille’s patrons preferred a more mature girl, the men who wanted Geneviève were willing to pay prettily for her and wait for her to become available—for however long it took. Plenty of men had a preference for this girl or that one, but mostly the clients wanted, within a reasonable range of options, the shortest wait possible. In fact several of them preferred to try out different girls, taking notes and comparing experiences.
But the men who came for Geneviève wanted only Geneviève—no one else. On certain days this meant they must wait an excruciatingly long time, which turned them scornful and impatient. The only girl with a clientele even remotely as faithful was Brigitte, she of the African bloodline and saucy lips and dark brown eyes. For five months now, Bonfils had proved the most patient of Genevieve’s waiters, but that might be, the old woman considered, because he entertained himself with bickering at the rest of Camille’s employees, frustrating their attempts to get him to throw down cash on gratuitous drinks.
The old woman turned her gaze to the open doorway of the room. She saw there, for the first time in an hour, her daughter, as brilliantly outfitted and regally coiffed as ever. Camille could have passed for thirty-two, but the mother alone knew she was forty-five. Camille had damp brown hair and calculating green-gold eyes; her skin was not exactly pink but caste instead in a glowing form of almost oriental (although it was actually half-Romanian) yellow. Camille directed a questioning look at her mother, her eyes moving once to Bonfils and back again. The old woman shook her head fatalistically, which meant, No, you’ll get nothing else out of him for liquor; but which also meant, No, he refuses to visit any of the other girls, and maybe too meant, even if the old woman didn’t precisely articulate this for herself in her own mind: It’s hopeless to keep him around, what with all his badgering.
Camille took a step inside the bar. “Lucien,” she said, her voice rising with barely any strain. At the sounds of her voice, Bonfils wheeled. “It is almost time.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Fantastique.” He stood immediately, like a man about to grab for a bag of gold hanging from a passing hansom.
“You may come in here and wait by the stairs. She will fetch you in a moment.”
A frown passed through Bonfils, but he did as instructed, walking through the doorway into the hall. Camille pointed to Bonfil’s glass on the bar; then she motioned her head at Odette. Odette picked up the glass and poured its contents back into the bottle. Camille followed Bonfils into the hall with the air of a teacher wanting to keep an undisciplined pupil on track.
“Hey,” Cousineau complained, “I would have finished that for him.”
“Pay me for it,” Odette said, “and you can drink it all you want.”
“He already paid for it.”
“He did—not you.” Before the man had time for a comeback, Odette turned, reached for a stray glass on the other side of the bar and decided to deliver it in person to the kitchen. The old woman understood what Odette was up to. She was angling that Cousineau would not call her back. The pretty little wastrel had consumed four glasses of wine already. Another and he might fall asleep at the bar, costing the institution everything he would have paid for a girl. It wasn’t all about forcing drinks on men. A smart bartender had to pick and choose. Odette knew when to cut them off.
Another man passed through the doorway: drowned in a brown sack coat, head down with a drooping moustache and a hooded look. Maybe it’s his first time, the old woman wondered. That was a rare find in Paris in 1880: a grown man who’d never visited a brothel. Either that or he’s worried about being recognized. That was much more likely. However, Cousineau paid him no mind at all. Cousineau seemed not to even realize the new man had arrived. The new man took the last seat on the far end, diagonally across from where Bonfils had been. He stared glumly at his wrists as if counting the hairs. Camille returned. Seeing the untended bar, she sighed and took a place behind it.
“What can I serve you while you wait?” Camille said.
At first the man just shook his head, not meeting her eye. From her angle at the piano, the old woman saw a balding top of head; a lined and unshaven face; tired, gloomy brown eyes. The man was older than Bonfils or at least looked like it. After a few moments more of not meeting Camille’s exculpatory stare, he muttered, “Absinthe, no water.”
“You want to burn the lining of your stomach? Or see visions maybe?”
The man didn’t respond. Camille shot him a dark look but proceeded to fill his order. While she poured the fiery spirit into a shot glass, the man stared at his hands. She set it directly front of his face.
“Is that the only one you’re drinking?” Camille said.
He paused, moved his head. He started to speak, then shrugged. “Can I start a tab?” the man asked, his voice grainy and hurting.
“You mean a tab for tonight or one that carries over?”
The man blinked at her. “Carries over.”
“If I knew you, maybe I’d say yes. But I don’t know you, so no. Why don’t you just give me 5 francs for that one, and we’ll see what happens.” The man regarded her now not with anger but a version of disappointment; disappointment in himself, the old woman sensed. She had watched the uncomfortable masque from her place at the piano. The man reached behind him for his change purse.
“What’s wrong?” Camille said.
The man only glowered silently.
“You want the one, right?” Camille said.
He started to nod, then stopped and half shook his head. “I don’t even want this one, I don’t think. “
“Too bad. You ordered it already.”
The man gave her an offended look. He extracted a five franc coin from his change purse and laid it softly on the bar. Camille scooped up the coin and placed it in a drawer beneath the counter. “Enjoy,” she said, motioning to the absinthe. He studied the glass, as if contemplating the movements of an assassin. Gingerly, he picked it up. He smelled the contents and set the shot back down, untried. It was an odd way to treat a drink you’d ordered yourself, but the old woman couldn’t exactly blame him. Absinthe without the dilution of water or the softening sweetness of sugar: that was like swallowing straight kerosene.
Odette emerged from the kitchen, wiping her face with the back of her hand. Her lips were smeared with an oily film.
“Where have you been?” Camille said.
“Evenings are long, you know,” Odette answered.
Camille shook her head and moved away, letting Odette take command again of the bar. She angled over to the piano. The old woman was finishing up “Cadet Rouselle,” which meant that for the third time that evening she’d completed her whole cycle of memorized music. She could try to improvise, but she never liked doing that. It would not take long for the paying customers to realize that the assembly of notes she offered didn’t add up to music. Instead of being pleasant background sounds that they didn’t even think about, the new notes would prick them into listening, to paying attention: keenly and tensely. Finally, emboldened by liquor, they would start complaining. It had happened too many times already. She simply wasn’t a good enough player; her life had not allowed her to become one. Indeed, every evening in this place drove into her more deeply and exactly what life had not allowed her. The old woman bent her head over the keys now, trying to remember the notes to “Chevalier du Guet.” After a few times, it came back to her.
“How are they behaving?”
The old woman looked up. Her daughter stood close, scrutinizing, eager for an honest answer. The old woman shrugged. “The only one I worry about is Bonfils.”
Camille flushed. “What can I do? He wants what he wants. And he pays for her.”
“I think he wants her too much. He wants her entirely too much. Almost every night.”
Camille looked away, shrugged.
“Can the girl take it?” the old woman asked.
Her daughter’s head came back, a sharp look. “She came to me. She asked me to let her work here.”
“So you better take care of her.”
“I take care of her as well as I take care of the others.”
“She makes you more money than the others.”
“Yes, and as a result I suffer a lot more abuse from these dirty old men who just can’t wait to get their cocks in her.”
“Oh they wait. That one waits.” She motioned her head to the hallway into which Bonfils had disappeared earlier.
Camille nodded. “Because she’s the only one I have. I’ve asked the girl two dozen times about her copines. So far, she’s offered no names.”
“She knows her star is brightest if she’s the only one.”
“The brightest and the most annoying. What if one of these men proposes to her? You think she won’t say yes?”
“They’re married, Camille. They’re always married. Bonfils is married.”
“Yes, and what happens when he decides to unmarry? Or that he can afford to own both a wife and a courtesan?”
“What happens when he kills her, that’s what I worry about.”
Camille raised her head, stared at her mother critically. “What are you saying? You think he’s that kind of man?”
“No, but he is the kind of man who wants what he wants badly. I see it in his eyes every evening as he sits here, tapping his hand, stomping his foot, going out of his mind with longing. And when he finally gets what he wants he takes her completely.”
“You mean he’ll be too rough with her.”
“Rough is an understatement. It’s not just roughness. He tortures her. Have you seen Geneviève after Bonfils leaves? She’s white, Camille. And she’s hurt. She’s cringing. She looks like she can’t even walk.”
Camille nodded coldly. “I’ve spoken to her about him. She says it is okay. Everything is okay.”
“She’s afraid to admit it’s not. She’s afraid you will kick her out. She will have no other place in this city to be.”
“Has she told you that?”
“She doesn’t have to. It’s plain on her face.”
“Why would I kick her out when she’s making me so much?”
The old woman shrugged and played harder. In short order, she reached the end of “Chevalier du Guet” and fell back on “Il Était une bergere,” the first song of her cycle.
Camille looked away, her gaze leveling and emptying. The old woman had seen the look a thousand times, ever since Camille had been a toddler. She was chewing on something in her mind, working toward a calculation that once arrived at she would refuse to deviate from. If her daughter was anything it was willful: stubbornly, even brutally, determined. In her own career as a purchased woman Camille Babineux had confronted several clients, shot two, and shoved another one out a third story window. She left three houses of her own accord: twice over disputes with the madams, the third time because she’d received an offer from a gentleman—a rather significant official in the inner circles of Napolean III, and a man rather significantly married to a cousin of the emperor—to settle her permanently in a posh country house. There she received 100 francs a month, a kitchen staff, a maid-in-waiting, and a new wardrobe twice a year, provided she reserved herself exclusively for this man whenever he had need of her and could escape from Paris.
What might have been a dream situation for another hired girl—serving as an important man’s pampered mistress—grew tiresome for Camille. The life was comfortable but listless. She didn’t even like the man that much. He was bombastic, in love with his own voice and convinced he satisfied her sexually, although there was precious little chance of that ever happening, what with his tiny cock and hurried style. And as luxurious as the house was she actually could have made more money on her back in Paris. After a year she quit, abandoning the home with as many dresses and necklaces and shoes as she could stuff into an oversized handbag, telling the man’s carriage driver to transport her immediately to Paris, since his master had requested her presence there in his private apartments.
Within two years, Camille had opened her own brothel and was soon making so much she could afford to replace all of the carpeting, curtains, bedding, and wallpaper; she hired a woman who had trained with the Sisters of Charity at the Hôtel-Dieu to serve as a nurse to the girls; she installed a piano in the bar; and she coaxed her mother—who was barely getting by as a charwoman—into living with them and lending her slight talents to the cause of providing jaunty entertainment for men about to pay for genital satisfaction. Almost all the customers, with the apparent exception of Monsieur Bonfils, loved the addition of the piano. It helped convince them—the old woman speculated—that they weren’t waiting to engage in depraved, ungodly, and technically illegal behavior; they were just out enjoying a drink with friends.
For the old woman, born Hortense Babineux in 1818 on the Rue de Rigoles, the playing was a kind of reclamation of what she once expected of herself. Her family—of good if not lavish means derived from her father’s work as a shopkeeper on the Rue Menilmontant—had owned a piano, and for several years of her childhood Hortense’s mother had cajoled her husband to pay for a tutor: a wiry, particular young man named Forestier. Forestier had large sad eyes, a fierce cravat, and elegant fingernails. He tyrannized her through rounds of scales and runs of light classical favorites, occasionally indulging her desire to play a song like “Compère Guilleri” that friends and family could actually enjoy. Her mother, rather too excessively rapturous at her daughter’s middling ability, mused aloud at the possibility of Hortense enjoying a life in music. Exactly what that life might be, her mother had no background from which to speculate, but Hortense entertained herself with daydreams of playing for crowds of hundreds at the Opéra Garnier, adoring admirers who remained spellbound during her ambitious classical repertoire but then sing lustily with her evening-ending renditions of “La Tour, prends garde!” and “J’ai du bon tabac”. Flowers would be thrown to her; men would proclaim their love; people in the street would stare at and then bow to her; she would be invited to play before Charles X.
By the time she’d turn nine, three years into the regime of lessons with her piano tutor, Hortense had developed a library of twelve or so popular songs with which to entertain herself and others when Monsieur Forestier was absent. But that year her father died in a carriage accident, and it was revealed that the family was in far worse debt than anyone knew. The piano lessons stopped; in fact all the tutoring she’d been used to stopped. The piano was sold along with nearly everything else the family owned. And even then the debts were not covered. Her mother took the family to live with her own parents in Clichy, two meager blocks from the river. When Hortense’s mother died of brain fever in 1836, the girl was forced to start a career of cleaning houses and offices, hiking from Clichy into central Paris six days a week. Because she was careful and diligent, she was valued by her clients and managed to keep getting work for the next four and a half decades. The only break in her history was an eight month period after the birth of Camille, a mixed event of joy and significance and shattering gloom, given that the girl’s father—a successful Romanian businessman who lived in the 3rd arrondisement—was an employer who had raped Hortense and then fired her.
Over the years Hortense had toyed with pianos in the homes she cleaned, and she’d long regaled her daughter with exaggerated stories of how well she used to play; but relearning her long-ago repertoire took far longer than she could have expected. Longer and with mostly bad results. But good enough, apparently, for her daughter and for most men who frequented a whorehouse.
A larger figure—a man around twenty, with a heavy jutting brow, short clipped hair, bony shoulders, and a scooped, skeletal face—appeared in the doorway. The new man hesitated, glanced around, and moved to take a place behind the bar. All at once, Odette looked relieved. She dropped the towel she was holding and informed everyone that she was going back to the kitchen. Camille said nothing. The bony man nodded distractedly and let Odette go, just as happy, it seemed, to be spared her presence. He put his right hand on the dropped towel and began rubbing the length of the bar, bumping accidentally into the shot glass of absinthe, out of which the brown-eyed man had yet to drink.
“Of course,” Camille said, with a note of weary hope, “if Bonfils intends to do anything he would have not just me to answer to but Marek.”
“It’s not what he intends to do that is the problem,” Hortense said. “It’s what he does. And besides, you’re assuming Marek would be here when he does it, and that’s not necessarily the case. You’re assuming Marek would even know what’s happening, or what you say to him. He might not understand why you’re asking him to do anything.”
Marek Baka had worked at Camille’s for only five months, having arrived in the city around the same time: without any French and with almost no money. Camille had tried repeatedly to get the man to explain why he chose Paris rather than, say, Linz or Prague—Marek was a Bohemian—but his communications consisted mostly of nods. However, he had a fierce, gaunt, forbidding look that Camille knew could prove useful; and there was an intelligence in his eyes that gave her hope he could be trained. Odette had managed to teach him the names of the various wines and spirits under the bar and for the past four weeks he had tended the area himself, starting at 9:30 each evening and working until four in the morning, when Camille shut the place down for eight hours of so, to let her girls rest; although in truth if she wanted she could get business any hour of the day, any day of the week, Sundays not excepted. Indeed, Sundays were one of the brothel’s busiest days.
Camille glanced at Marek, who was leaning over the bar and eyeing his customer’s glasses suspiciously. “Oh, I expect he understands well enough by now.”
“Does he?” The old woman stopped playing.
Camille waved her hand. “Of course.” Then to prove her point she called gently, “Marek, venez ici.”
Marek started at his name, standing up straight and turning with alarm toward Camille. But instead of walking toward his employer he studied her face as if trying to decrypt a code planted there.
“Marek,” Hortense added, “Madame Babineux essaie de vous parler. En privé. Venez ici, s’il vous plait.”
Now the bartender shifted his glance back and forth worried between the two women. The towel was still in his hand; he squeezed it once and held.
“Elle veut vous parler!”
Still Marek did not respond. The brown-eyed man at the bar took a long first sip off the glass of absinthe, his gaze hurt and worried.
Camille sighed. She motioned dismissively with her hand. “Don’t worry about it, Marek. Just take care of our customers.” She pointed to the two men. “Our customers,” she said more loudly. “Nos clients.” Marek, with a scared look, wheeled around to face them. He examined their glasses. He proceeded to refill the glasses even though neither man had asked him to do so. The brown-eyed man responded to this kindness by finishing off the entire brimming glassful of absinthe in one swallow. Free spirits.
“Ai yai yai,” Camille breathed. “Don’t give them the liquor for nothing,” she called. “Ne leur donnez pas les boissons jusqu’à ce qu’ils paient.“
Marek stared at her, blushing now and patently confused.
“See,” Hortense said, “I told you. He won’t know.”
At that moment, they heard a shout from the second floor of the house. Less a shout actually—not that voluntary, not that conscious—than a piece of agony stretched across a course of seconds, in a voice almost animal in its despair. Camille’s face turned white, her mouth a circle, her green eyes iced by a realization.
“Which room?” the old woman asked even as Camille was moving toward the doorway. Camille didn’t answer, and her mother knew why: It ought to be clear to both of them which room. She’d understood it in her bones, as soon as she’d heard the scream. She was only hoping that perhaps Camille could dissuade her from the realization of her prophecy.
“Marek,” the Hortense commanded, “Suivez-la, dès maintenant. Maintenant! Follow Madame Babineux.” Frantically, she gestured in the direction of the doorway her daughter had passed through. This time Marek responded by dropping the bar towel and surging toward the exit, eyes intent. Then Hortense heard Camille scream. She couldn’t help but follow the noise; she couldn’t keep her feet from moving, even though the remaining fragment of her panicked brain told her she had no business at her age moving toward trouble. There was absolutely no good that she could perform. At the same time, she felt something happening behind her, something at the bar—perhaps someone else coming—but she didn’t pause to look. There was too much ahead of her that mattered. When she reached the carpeted stairway that took one to the bedrooms where the girls worked, she heard a grunt, a struggle, a cry from inside the room just off the top of the stairs, to the left. Geneviève’s.
The old woman took two steps slowly. Then two more. She saw a left arm, a bent one, covered in ordinary white linen of a man’s shirt, poke from the door. She saw an elbow. She saw a shoulder. The arm went back inside. More sounds of struggle. Something moved past her on the stairway, headed up. She was so startled it took her a moment to realize that it was not a feral animal or an eidolon or a gendarme, but a person in an ordinary ugly brown coat. In his right hand was a bottle containing a clear liquid. He held the bottle with his palm fully around the neck and its based suspended, pensile, like a man would a club. Not until she focused on the back of the man’s head—its broad pink bald spot in the middle of damp and listless strands of graying hair—did she realize who she was observing.
At the same moment the man reached the top of the stairway, Bonfils emerged from the room, his eyes wide, energized with action and the desire to run. In his left hand was a knife slicked red at the end. The man from the bar barely hesitated. In one seamless motion, before Bonfils even had time to react, the man brought the glass bottle around and slammed Bonfils in the face with it. Bonfils dropped and the man proceeded to beat him on the head until the bottle broke. He then used the jagged end to stab an unconscious Bonfils in the side. Not once but repeatedly. Eventually he tossed the end of the bottle to one side, and with a concentrated look—a mixture of awe and fear and depravity—he headed back down the stairs and out the front door. He did not so much as glance at Hortense.
She stood still, listening, hoping to hear anything from the bedroom: any human sound. Her ears needed to adjust to the quiet following that charged noisy quality air took when filled with the texture of anger and the sound of glass moving in space, acting against a human body. Once one heard that, it was hard to hear anything else. Hortense took three tentative steps up the stairway and, close to the top, was able to see that three of the other girls’ doors were open. Two of their heads—Anais’s shocking red one and Sylvie’s dark, perturbed one—peeked out, nervously trying to anticipate if the battle was over. The third girl, however—Reneé, the oldest of Camille’s girls, who at thirty-four demonstrated a wiry figure and a sense of willful, no-nonsense domination that many men were thrilled to pay for week after week—flung open her door and stepped into the hallway, eager to scrutinize the situation. She locked eyes with Hortense for a moment but showed her no warmth. Indeed, Hortense felt a kind of condemnation in Reneé’s gaze, as if it were her fault any of this had happened, which made no sense at all.
A customer moved out from behind Reneé: a tall, ponderously silver-haired man whose white shirt was not quite tucked into his trousers and who wore shiny leather shoes but carried his stockings in his hand. The man took one look at the scene in the hallway and walked determinedly—a few, long, cool strides—past the girls, past the unmoving Bonfils, to the stairway. There he charged down as if running from a fire. The front door opened; it closed. Anais and Sylvie both look behind them into their rooms, apparently checking to make sure the occupants hadn’t left yet.
Reneé started down the hallway. One step before reaching Geneviève’s door, the woman paused, ignoring Bonfils—still bleeding, but apparently alive—and then turned to see what there was to see inside. Her head reared, her neck stiffened, her mouth droped opened. Hortense heard Reneé mutter something; if it wasn’t “Mon Dieu,” it was something close. Reneé rushed into the room. Then Hortense realized that the whole time she’d stood on the stairs she had been hearing something; it had never diminished but melded into a part of the permanent sonic landscape, so thoroughly she had stopped recognizing the sound with her mind even while she heard it with her ears: the sound of Genevieve crying.
When Hortense reached the door of the room, she saw the girl first. Genevieve sat a curled naked mess on the floor near the top of the bed, her face pointed toward the back of the room, her stringy brown hair fetal and puddled like blood, the bony young knuckles of her spine like the wing of a broken bird. Genevieve was weeping into her hands, Reneé beside her, down on one knee, trying to comfort her with an arm across her shoulders. But there seemed no comfort available to give. It was then that Hortense wtinessed the red marks that looked not like knife marks but bite marks on Geneviève’s neck and near her ear and on her shoulder blade and on her behind. It was then Hortense saw blood in little liquid pieces on the floor. The old woman glanced to her right and saw her daughter sitting up in one of the narrow cushioned chairs Camille purchased last year for each of her girls’ rooms. Camille’s head was tilted to one side and her eyes were open. What’s the matter, daughter, the old woman wanted to ask. What are you looking at? But her mouth would not let her form the words. Especially when she saw how many seconds passed without Camille blinking. And then the widening splotch of red on the right side of her daughter’s body, about where her liver would be. She had just begun to speculate on the whereabouts of Marek when she realized he was on the left, on the floor, supine, grasping his stomach and breathing uneasily, sweat staining his forehead and nose and chin. He began to speak, a single word: prosím. He repeated it three times, four times. Prosim. Hortense had no idea what he was trying to say.
She collapsed to the carpet, her legs folding beneath her so that even if she was sitting up, technically upright, she felt unsteady, as if she might tip over any minute. Gentle shushing mutters sounded from ahead of her. To her left a pale-faced man gasped out a foreign word, ignored by everyone. To her right was silence. She wondered how she could fill it or stop it or conquer it: this totality of terrible noises in a house that would now fall to her, because there was no one else to whom her daughter had thought of assigning it, a house she had no idea how to manage except that one should keep it clean and keep certain people from being killed—and she had failed at both already. A queer, truant thought crossed Hortense’s mind that she could turn the edifice into a concert space: break down a wall, build a small stage, fill the lower rooms with comfortable chairs and play, play, play on that piano. “Joli tambour,” “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” “Nous n’irons plus au bois.” Perhaps with practice, so much practice, she could blend in something better, something higher, something worth spending money on—like a few selections from “The Symphonie Fantastique”? Could she charge 25 francs? Could she keep the girls on as ushers and ticket sellers? Could she enlist them to cook chicken and baby potatoes and asparagus and garlic soup and then sell them to the customers for a prix fixe that include a concert? And for how much: 50 francs? 60? 70? Would this be enough to hold on to the house, to employ the girls, to make them all a living?
Hortense found her hands moving along the carpet beneath her: thumbs and index fingers, and the all the rest, straining for a melody, but stopping, finally, when she hit what she feared: the dead space where the keys felt wooden and the hammers stuck and the notes wouldn’t sound, and all that hung in the air was echoes of what was already passed and was never coming back, except to memorialize what had tried and failed and tried. And failed.
John Vanderslice lives and works in Conway, Arkansas where he serves as associate editor of Toad Suck Review. His stories have been published in Versal, Seattle Review, Laurel Review, Sou’wester, Crazyhorse, and dozens of other periodicals. His collection of linked short stories, Island Fog, is forthcoming from Lavender Ink/Dialogos in 2014.